Why We Can’t Acknowledge Progress

Kendrick Frazier

I grew up in the 1950s when, for the most part, people seemed optimistic and positive about the world (if we didn’t blow ourselves up with atomic bombs). All things seemed possible. Today, in stark contrast, we seem immersed in a sour milieu in which many think the world is worse than ever and things are going to hell. You can always find abundant examples to support that view (or any other view), but what do the data show?

In his new book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker not only strongly defends science, humanism, and the ideals of the Enlightenment—ideals we strongly support—but also excoriates educated people for their consistent negativism and pessimism. In fact, in an extended excerpt titled “Progressophobia” that we publish in this issue, he contends that intellectuals hate the very idea of progress. If so, is that perhaps because if things are getting better, we fear that our various efforts to improve the world lose their power? That’s part of it. But Pinker shows that our current sour view comes primarily from a system of psychological biases and mental bugs that cause us to accentuate the negative and downplay the positive. Couple that with natural journalistic tendencies to emphasize bad news over good (not news)—and a demonstrated worsening trend in that regard—and we have a clear recipe for seeing things through ever-darkening glasses. And that prevents us from noticing and acknowledging widespread improvements in human conditions that are indeed happening globally. In our article, Pinker responds to critics of his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he persuasively demonstrated that worldwide and in historical perspective violence has gone down. In his new book he demonstrates, with detailed and credible data, that historically and globally we have also seen long-term improvements in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness.

If that seems counterintuitive to you, you are not alone. Most educated people find this difficult to believe. Our blinders are on. But scientific skeptics should go where the evidence leads. Pinker argues the case eloquently and, I think, effectively, drawing on both the demographic data and our improved understanding of human biases that get in our way of seeing the truth. I urge you to follow his reasoning carefully. Pinker is one of our most distinguished public intellectuals and a long-time fellow of our Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. You may disagree with him, but you better bring better data with you to the fight.

Speaking of how our preconceptions can influence our view of things, psychologist Matthew J. Sharps returns to our pages with his fresh take on “Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars.” The story of how Lowell (no fool) thought he saw canals on Mars may seem laughable to us today, but it seemed very real at the time. Sharps describes the psychological and sociocognitive processes, among some very brilliant people, that led to what was, after all, a grand delusion. No one is immune, and that’s the central lesson for us today.

—Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.


I grew up in the 1950s when, for the most part, people seemed optimistic and positive about the world (if we didn’t blow ourselves up with atomic bombs). All things seemed possible. Today, in stark contrast, we seem immersed in a sour milieu in which many think the world is worse than ever and things …

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